The Tongva (Part 2)

by John Neiuber

Before Claremont was founded by the railroad; before Pomona College was established; before the first Anglo settler, Tooch Martin, built his shack near what is now 11th Street; before the Spanish land grant ranchos; and before the vast land holdings of the Mission San Gabriel, Claremont was home to indigenous people commonly known as the Tongva* who lived in a village near the mesa later known as Indian Hill, where the California Botanic Garden is located.

The village was one of about 100 that made up the Tovangar nation and was called Torojoatnga, “the place below snowy mountain.”  The mountain, Mt. San Antonio (Mt. Baldy) was known as Joat or Joatnga, “snowy mountain” and was considered a sacred site along with three other peaks, Mt. Saddleback, Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto.  It is believed that the tribe would spend summers camping on Joatnga to avoid the heat of the valley.  Water was abundant and flowed from the mountain canyons into four sacred rivers, the Los Angeles River, Hondo River, San Gabriel River and the Santa Ana River.

A stream flowed on the east side of the mesa and it has been speculated that the village occupied an area on the southwest end of the mesa near what would be the Via Zurita neighborhood today.  This would have allowed for access to the stream and the high ground of the mesa would have provided additional protection from flooding and, although quite rare, aggression.

Torojoatnga is reported in some accounts to have had around 100 inhabitants, however Tooch Martin reported that as many as forty-five houses and a population of 200 occupied the mesa.  The houses were circular domed structures called kizhs.  Willow tree branches were planted into the ground in a circle.  The poles were bent toward the center and tied together to create a domed ceiling.  Tule rushes and other stiff grasses were layered much like shingles and tied to the frame. The homes had at least one door and sometimes a window.  Large sweathouses were also dome shaped and covered with tule reeds and packed dirt.  

As was the case with most indigenous California tribes, men and children did not wear clothing during mild weather.  If the men wore something it was usually an animal skin around the hips.  Women wore skirts made of thin strips of bark, tule grasses or leather.  During colder weather women and men wore capes made of animal hides or fur.  Usually they went barefoot. However, if they were living in the mountains they wore sandals made from yucca plant fibers.  Women wore flowers in their hair. Tattoos of blue-black lines on their foreheads and chins were common.

The villagers were hunters, gatherers and fishermen.  The women were the primary gatherers of acorns, cattails and chia plants to be ground and made into cakes.  Hunting and fishing was the province of the men.  They hunted with boomerangs, or makanas, bows and arrows and spears.  Primarily they hunted squirrel, rabbit, deer and bear and other wildlife found at a bog where Pilgrim Place is now located.

The Tongva were deeply spiritual and village life centered around social and religious gatherings.  They believed in a supreme being that brought order to a chaotic world.  Like many cultures, they celebrated the winter solstice, which also marked the new year.  The solstice was celebrated with a meal, storytelling, music, dance, songs from ancestors and fire offerings of chia seeds, acorn flour and berries, followed by prayer.

The inhabitants traded with neighboring villages that became the sites of the current cities of Pomona (Toibingna), Covina (Weniingna), San Dimas (Momwamomotngna), Rancho Cucamonga (Kukamongna), Walnut (Pemookangna), La Puente (Awingna) and El Monte (Houtngna).

The area became part of the vast Mission San Gabriel Archangel in 1771.  This began the demise of the villages and people of Tovangar.  The mission was moved to the village of Sibangna in 1775 and was renamed San Gabriel.  Many were forced into slavery to build the mission and toil in the fields.  Others, after conversion, were moved from their villages to the mission. Because of the association with the mission the local indigenous tribes became known as the Gabrielenos.  

The history of the local indigenous people of Claremont is much the same as that of others elsewhere in California.  Historian Anthony Lehman, in Claremont’s Historic Indian Hill points out:  “With the advent of the white man, they were crowded off their rancherias by the herds and fields of the new settlers; the old mode of existence was completely and irrevocably uprooted; and henceforth the rapidly declining Indian population could only support itself by laboring for the very people by whom it had been dispossessed.”

Two smallpox epidemics devastated the tribe locally, first in 1862 and then again in 1873.  The last epidemic killed the majority of those who had survived the first, and by 1883, Tooch Martin notes that the last of the tribe had left.

Over the years, a few artifacts have been collected in and around Indian Hill.  The COURIER reported in the September 15, 1927, edition that fragments of mortars and pestles were still found throughout the Indian Hill area. Claremont resident, Jerry Laudermilk, wrote an article for Westways in 1958, in which he describes making Indian bread from acorns he had collected around Indian Hill, using a mortar and pestle he had found in the same area. Laudermilk also discovered the remains of a one-room adobe in the area and ascertained it was established by an Indian family who worked for the local rancho, given the artifacts discovered.  

Pomona College student, Josephine Hervey, believed she has discovered the Indian burial ground in 1925, but after much digging to a depth of six feet, found nothing. Archaeological investigations and discoveries have been made, mostly by college staff and students, however, no professional excavations have been proposed or undertaken.  Some artifacts have been cataloged and preserved by the Pomona College museum.

• Part one of this column gained the attention of advocates who believe that the term “Tongva” is the incorrect name for the indigenous people of the L.A. Basin.  They believe that “Kizh” is the correct name.  Tongva has been the generally accepted term in the vast majority of the literature and research and is used widely by historians, therefore, it is used in this column for the purpose of discussing the indigenous people of the Claremont area.  The columnist and COURIER believe this is not the time or place to debate the merits of the arguments from any factions.  If there comes a time when one term is used and generally accepted, then it will be embraced.  For more information:;;  


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